Before anyone gets excited, let me note that this pregnancy ended in a miscarriage a couple months ago. I’m not currently pregnant.

“Maybe,” then “probably,” and at that point I joined the April 2012 birth board on BabyCenter. I’d fantasized about the moment I found out I was pregnant again. My face got hot when I put pretend conception dates into the due date calculator and I melted a little bit.

But that isn’t how it felt at all, because just like last time, there was no single romantic moment when everything was revealed. Instead, I watched mounting symptoms–nipples sore when Rebecca sucked, probable implantation cramps almost a week too soon to be my period, at six and seven days after I probably ovulated and certainly had sex–I declared myself 60% sure–then being thirsty a lot and peeing even more. Well, it was hot outside. I remember months when I must’ve had a natural progesterone surge and felt more crampy and sore-nippled than usual, and those times I’d thought, “If I’d had sex this month, I might think I was pregnant”–but this was stronger. In the background, whenever I paid attention, my abdomen felt full and heavy in a way I’d forgotten. 90% sure.

Ted said that speculating about pregnancy stressed him out, and that I should wait to tell him until I was certain. I decided I wouldn’t take a pregnancy test until at least a week after my period would’ve started, because by then there’d be no more chance of false negatives. When we got pregnant with Rebecca, I tested five or six days after I’d expected my period and got a negative, and Ted believed it. I kinda believed it, too. Even worse, despite Ted’s desire to be a dad, he’d been relieved when the test said I wasn’t pregnant, in an “Oh please fuck, not THIS month” sort of way. Now had been barely a month since his dad died, and I was worried he’d feel the same way again.

But that evening when Ted was out I thought about the signs and decided I was pregnant anyway–95% sure now. Rebecca and I went outside and sat in the pool, and the sky was so blue, and there was nothing wrong with the world.

On the April 2012 birth board, women who had the same estimated due date as I did were buying First Response pregnancy tests and some were starting to see positives, though most weren’t. I posted that I was pregnant, but not inclined to pee on a stick. Why bother, when my body was already testing for hcg and reporting to me directly?

My mind traced over the future until it had a patina. I showed Rebecca how to turn somersaults and I carried her to the park on my back, knowing I won’t be able to do these things much longer. I lost interest in reading about parenting toddlers or about anything else but pregnancy.

One person congratulated me as pregnant online, and said she probably wouldn’t take a test either. Can I say, without being too butt-hurt about the accolades of strangers, that people with positive pregnancy tests got a lot more congratulations than that? I could lie and say I took a test and they’d believe me, but the idea that a woman could announce it for sure, this early, solely on the evidence of her own body–that seems not to be part of their world. A couple weeks later, when the pace of the board had taken off, another person wrote about not taking a pregnancy test and got post after post of vitriol.

I think later some of the same women will rely on doctors to tell them how and when the baby can come out, how much it’ll hurt, and what positions to labor in–an approach that over all leads to more physical and psychological complications than following our bodies’ lead.  Maybe they’ll leave the hospital feeling concerned that the experts would put them in charge of caring for a baby, when they hardly know anything about babies.  It’s little wonder that they wouldn’t trust themselves to figure it out at that point. I wonder how many of the nascent mothers will parent the same way they approach pregnancy tests, and need someone else’s approval before they can read whatever signs are right in front of them.

There’s one more sign that I didn’t mention on the birth board, because I doubt it’ll help my case if people think I’m crazy. I felt a presence in the dark while I rocked Rebecca, someone weather-beaten but good-humored and strong. I don’t recognize him, but I think it must be one of the ancestors I called to bring us a baby. I half think that I am tricking myself. But if you ask me why I believe these things, a big part of the explanation is that I don’t think the standard secular paths to knowledge are entirely on my side or entirely good for people like me–I mean parents. I’m going to be wrong sometimes when I trust my own sense of things, but I’m okay with that. Every epistemology has its blind spots. I’m less eager to subscribe to an instrument of my own oppression, which is where I’d be going if I wrote off the clearest messages my body could send as unreliable.

Or maybe I have cancer, I said to myself. Freakier coincidences have happened than cancer showing up right when I’d expected implantation. Or a UTI? I don’t know what could cause the same symptoms I have, so I stay up at night in bed wondering whether it’s crazy to think I can diagnose my own pregnancy, because if I can’t trust my diagnosis, then these feelings could mean anything.  I remembered what I’d said before we knew for sure about Rebecca: If I’m not pregnant, then something is very wrong with my body and I need to see a doctor. But really, it’s ridiculous to think I’m not pregnant. Any other explanation stretches credulity.

Hopeful women online are comparing symptoms. One woman said, “I know we’re all trying not to overthink it,” as if you’re supposed to wait docilely until the pregnancy test and avoid attributing significance before that. Another thread asks what one symptom you’d had on previous pregnancies that meant you knew for sure. I didn’t answer, because it’s not one thing–it’s a mounting suspicion that shades into certainty–but maybe I’m not as alone as I thought.

I can’t think about anything but being pregnant, which means I don’t talk a lot, but Ted and I kiss more than usual. I wonder if part of the appeal of trusting pregnancy tests instead of your own senses is that it puts you and your partner on equal ground, and gives you a moment to celebrate together. I wonder at the ways that unshared knowledge seems unreal. I want to talk about it. Instead I tell myself that if I’m pregnant, I’ll have plenty more days to be pregnant in, no rush. All I need to do is let time wash over me. But oh, we mothers sail strange waters in these days that we don’t speak and don’t speak of.

Then fingers of nausea clutched at me when I tried to eat sautéed pea leaves at China Pavilion, and the same thing happened the next day when I tried to eat a salad, and the day after that the smell of Rebecca’s ketchup drove me across the table. I feel peevishly vindicated with each twinge in my stomach, because I knew I was pregnant all along. And I’m relieved. Nothing is wrong with me. I’m pregnant.

I told Ted a few days later, and he was happy, too. And I never did take a home pregnancy test.

Dirty Hippies

One morning at 6 AM, I tell Rebecca that she doesn’t have enough cat hair on her lollipop yet, and that I won’t wash it off (again) until she does. She’s not eating the lollipop, as far as I can tell, just using it to pick up cat hair.

Rebecca loves the drama of messes big and little, and she loves the idea that if you make a mess, it needs to be cleaned up. She pauses part way through finger-painting to wipe her hands off on a towel, then grabs the blue paint and rubs it into her smock.

Ted told me that Rebecca was playing with another toddler and tried to pour dirt in her hair. “No,” Ted said, “We don’t put dirt on other people’s heads. If you want to pour dirt on somebody’s head, it has to be your own head.” Rebecca spent the next fifteen minutes pouring dust over herself. “So her hair might be a little dirty,” he warned me.

We grinned at that story like we were getting away with something. Maybe we were, if parents are supposed to be the voice of broad social expectations–take a bath every day and so on. Some people are going to write us off as permissive parents, but we’re not going to enforce values that we don’t agree with. What’s going on here is that I’m trying to avoid making clean and unclean into part of a cosmic drama. I don’t want my horror to be what’s most interesting about making messes, and if Rebecca wants to play with the categories of good and bad, she can do it somewhere else.

When you make uncleanness the subject of horror, maybe kids get heartbroken when they fall in the mud. Maybe grownups get entrenched in fights against their houses, as if having a dirty house made them worse people. Now, it’s one thing to clean up because you enjoy the process, or because you’ve weighed your options and benefit from the results of order and sanitation enough to justify the time you spend. But it’s another thing when your sense of personal worth, or your ability to relax, or your ability to connect with other people depend on whether your house is clean and your clothes okay.

The problem is that no matter what you do, you and your house will keep getting dirty. Any sense of worth or control that you tie to your house’s cleanliness is constantly under threat, constantly in need of proving and shoring up. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in, and it disproportionately affects women. We’re more likely than men to feel that the state of our houses makes a statement about us. We’ve also been more carefully schooled in feeling vulnerable, and thus are more prone to anxiety when things fall out of order and control. Both lead to women doing more than their share of the housework, and resenting it–if cleaning is not really what they want to being doing with their time, but they have stakes in their house’s cleanliness that they can’t give up on. That’s what Laura Kipnis argues in The Female Thing, if I remember correctly. I read the book a little more than two years ago, back while I was pregnant with Rebecca and first starting to think hard about housework.

The idea that dirt is a symbolic hazard even more than a practical one is nothing new. I haven’t kept up on research about antibiotic resistant bacteria, allergies caused by exposure to too few germs, or health problems linked to artificial scents, but I’ve seen enough to think that women’s magazine standards of cleanliness may not be good for us.

And I’ve only done tangential reading in the history and anthropology of cleanliness, but I’ve seen enough to know that the symbolism around dirt is part of larger structures of meaning that help secure and naturalize class privilege: that being clean and presentable means being respectable, means being trustworthy and diligent and competent and nice, means having enough money to buy a big enough space to live clutter-free and to keep that space looking good. It’s also about control / shame of biological processes, turning what was three-dimensional and lively into a perfect two-dimensional photo shoot.

Nevertheless, when I read The Female Thing a couple years ago, I wondered about how Kipnis might be overstating some things, about whether most American women really feel all that anxious about dirt, or whether she might be over-relying on media imagery and missing other meaning systems in play on the ground. But now I’ve heard a lot more parents yelling about messes and dirt, and I can see how a toddler might gain a very deep sense that dirt and messes are Not Okay.

All of this is something I’d save my daughter from if I could.

That’s a tricky proposition, though.  The simplest way to resist the dominant ideology would be simply refusing to clean, but that’s no good.  As much as I don’t want Rebecca to develop a horror of dirt, she does need to have some values surrounding cleanliness. I don’t want her to be ostracized or infected by e. coli, and practically, we need to get her to limit her messes to what we can more or less clean up. Nor do I want to denounce cleaning as oppressive and unimportant work; I’ve already written about the dangers of denouncing our physicality and the work involved in supporting it. A lot of my life is given over to meeting our basic physical needs. If you count grocery shopping, cooking, and gardening as well as laundry and sweeping and picking up, I average 2-3 hours per day on housework, and often enough, it structures the whole day. If I devalue that, I’m going to get depressed.

So what do I do? I try to clean in a way that emphasizes process over end product. I put in my time and try not to worry too much about meeting standards I’ll resent.  Focusing on the process instead of the result also helps me avoid getting into fights with Rebecca, because it means her messes aren’t setting me back from a particular goal, just giving me a new activity to work on.

But then, sooner or later, I find myself having an imaginary conversation with Ted, who’s complaining about the toys or other clutter on the floor–and often about things he wouldn’t really complain about–and I tell the imaginary Ted to bite me and to reassess the division of labor.  (The amount of work I’m doing right now seems just about fair, but I think keeping the house to higher standards wouldn’t be.)  Sooner or later, I find myself in real conversations with ugly undertones, when I suspect that people do think worse of me for not having a cleaner and better decorated house. And I spend much more time worrying about these things than I should, if I really thought the house weren’t a reflection of my worth as a woman and mother.

So who knows what I’m modeling for Rebecca. I’m not sure I’ve avoided teaching her a horror of mess, because I still use my parental power to make some things mandatory.  Like washing your hair when there’s peanut butter in it: Getting the peanut butter out is more important than how Rebecca feels about it. On the other hand, if Rebecca at least doesn’t grow up with oppressively high standards of cleanliness, standards that will tax her heart or time or pocketbook or relationships with her housemates, then I’ve done my job well enough. Forget the clean rhetorical lines and ideological purity; real life is messier.  Besides, even if Rebecca ultimately doesn’t share my values, maybe parenting her helps free me from the hegemonic voices that say I should keep the floor cleaner.

One afternoon in Rockefeller plaza, Rebecca dabs my face with red velvet cheesecake and Ted takes pictures of us like newlyweds. I wouldn’t say that messes are bad. I’d say that sometimes messes are exhilarating.

A Little Knowledge

If, like me, you’re the sort who likes to claim status based on what you know, then motherhood presents a problem. What good is it to know that all last week Rebecca said “aku” when she meant “ice cream,” and that her jelly sandals are more comfortable with socks on, while her brown shoes are more comfortable without socks? Who cares about my trick for cooling down her rice by stirring cheese into it, or that she likes to add pasta to boiling water one noodle at a time, or that she’s more likely to settle into watching me cook when she’s gotten plenty of chances for self-determination earlier in the day? I’ve learned a lot about my daughter, and I hope that sooner or later most of it will be obsolete.

I also suspect that insisting on my knowledge–the way one does with status-bearing knowledge–not only wouldn’t work, but would suck for everyone involved. I read a blog post one time about the dangers of conflating “my child doesn’t want to eat broccoli today” with “my child doesn’t like broccoli.” The author was an intuitive eating advocate, and from her perspective, she hadn’t run into any foods her children didn’t like, only foods that weren’t what they wanted to eat at a particular moment. Maybe a kid wouldn’t eat something for months in a row or hadn’t ever eaten it, but she still didn’t elevate that to “disliking” a food.

This is another one of those places where rhetoric makes a difference, and I know that because of my recent experience with too much zucchini. Now, I have a story in my head that says zucchini doesn’t taste good anymore after eating it for three or four days in a row. We currently have five times that much zucchini waiting to be consumed (thanks, Mo!). So a couple days ago I was stealing myself against the taste of zucchini in my pasta, eating it virtuously but trying not to notice it, when suddenly I realized that it tasted good. It turns out my body is really into zucchini right now, and my story about not liking it that much was holding me back.

It’s that way with a lot of the stories we tell, especially about children, who can change so quickly. It’s useful to have a general sense for what’s likely to happen, but if I insist that Rebecca likes this or doesn’t like that, can do this or can’t do that–then I’ve built her a prison. The Rebecca I know today is partly an artifact of the patterns that guided our interactions yesterday. She enjoys different things with different people, and is growing into others. I wouldn’t want to cut that richness out of her life, nor take over her relationships with the other people who are important to her.

So what do I do? I try to sound smart on the internet, and wonder if the limits of my experience are making me into an ass. Seriously, people, sometimes I worry when no one argues with me.

Boundaries Are A Bad Idea

Don’t tell me that toddlers need boundaries. Boundaries are a bad metaphor, especially where young toddlers are concerned, because most things counted as boundaries would be better conceived as positive expectations.

Take for example, “No naked in the front yard.” This kind of prohibition gives the child freedom to put on clothes and be outside, or to decide to stay inside naked. But instead of presenting that choice or the positive expectation that your child will put clothes on, what you’ve actually presented is a puzzle. You have definite expectations about the right way to go out, but you’re asking the child to figure out potential alternatives instead of giving guidance directly. As advocates of positive discipline point out, it’s disingenuous and frustrating. Especially for a younger toddler, who’s still mastering daily routines and figuring out what clothes mean, wearing clothes outside isn’t a boundary. It’s an action, and thinking of it as anything else makes you less likely to present cultural expectations clearly.

Reframing boundaries as actions puts you in a more collaborative position toward your toddler. If you see wearing shoes on your walks as the right way to go, giving your toddler that knowledge is potentially empowering. Maybe knowing sidewalk etiquette gives kids a sense of security and accomplishment, but just as importantly, once the expectation or routine is established, kids can invoke it just as well as their parents can. If Rebecca wants to go to the playground, she can go get our shoes. In that sense, having active expectations is more like sharing a language than like setting boundaries you can’t cross.

Conversely, how does emphasizing boundaries effect the ways we react to our children? Does it make it easier to presume that you and your toddler aren’t really on the same side, and keep you in the mind frame of policing her? Does it encourage parents to stand firm on rules that curtail toddlers’ movement–like eating in a high chair or sitting in a stroller–instead of finding ways for kids to learn the right way to handle a situation? Does it subtly draw parents’ attention away from the motives behind their children’s behavior, by assuming that all they’re trying to learn is how firm boundaries are? Does it make it easier to assume that toddlers’ desires are inscrutable, unpredictable, and basically independent of and at odds with parental desires? I don’t know that these effects are necessary logical corollaries of the boundaries metaphor, but when I think about my parental role in terms of setting boundaries, it puts me into that mindset. What about you?

I suspect the boundary metaphor sets parents and children up for failure by underplaying the role of learning and overplaying power dynamics. Positive language like “acting competently” or “acting appropriately” makes it clearer that most of the behaviors we expect from toddlers involve a learning process, which might even involve some experimentation to find out why we do things the way we do. By contrast, “boundary” invokes the image of something static and obvious–not something you need to put much effort into mastering. People talk about “respecting” boundaries, not “learning” them. When people start invoking boundaries, overstepping them isn’t like making a mistake on a math problem, and it’s probably not an innocent experiment or a potentially legitimate preference that you might find a better outlet for. Whatever your kid is doing is now about your authority–maybe in your kid’s eyes as well as your own, unfortunately. The received wisdom on parenting holds that when kids test boundaries, you have to stand firm, so that “they learn that you mean it.” The learning involved gets displaced into a question of power. Not helpful.

The other problem with the conventional approach to learning boundaries is that it’s bad psychology. Rebecca enjoyed pouring water on the floor the first few weeks we let her drink from an open cup. She ran around trying to grab things the first few times we let her out of the grocery cart, too. When people get a new freedom, especially one they’re not sure of keeping, they usually do go a little wild with it at first. It’s a combination of previously deferred desires and developing schemas for navigating all the new possibilities. It’s also a predictable part of the learning process, which means you can plan for it; for example, by making shorter trips to the grocery store and avoiding the aisles with lots of breakables the first few times your toddler goes on foot. You act as a guide and point out mistakes. You keep on encouraging appropriate behavior and helping your toddler refine her shopping impulses into more constructive paths. But her exploration isn’t really about you, and your desires and hers aren’t really opposed.

Well, most of the time.


I have a piece on dealing with pregnant aches up at Pagan Families. It expands on part of my earlier post about birth prep. If you try it, let me know what you think! As with the sleep posts, it’s geared toward motherhood but applicable to other situations.

I have dried purple roses lodged in my throat, which Ted’s mom sent me for my college graduation, ten years ago this summer.  It’s hard to know where to start talking about all the  hopes and relationships that have corroded since then.  This June Ted’s father died and now the days Rebecca would’ve spent sailing and stargazing with her grandpa are gone, too.

The years that weren’t happy were at least interesting. It warmed my spirit to sit by cosmic fires, but now when I look back on all the times we had to be strong, it’s searing.  Be a creme brulee, not a fire-safe, I tell myself.

So we spent our tenth wedding anniversary drinking with friends, which is exactly the sort of thing Ted and I always used to do on occasions when we were supposed to be romantic. Rebecca kept escaping into the Hallmark, a 20-month old sentimentalist. Then we couldn’t drive home, so we walked over to Home Depot to look at rugs. I thought it would make a wonderful story if we bought something stupid on impulse, but he didn’t.  We debated the idea loud, cheerful, drunk, and free–and left restored.

Unmaking Mistakes

My mom used to ask what mistakes she’d made as a parent.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I thought her biggest mistake was not insisting that I drive a car regularly in highschool. I’d taken drivers ed at 17 and got my license based on a written test, but I didn’t really learn how to drive until I moved to California for grad school. It was stressful! I was embarrassed! And I wished I’d already gotten it over with. My mom looked back at the ridiculous amounts of time she’d spent chauffeuring teenaged me and agreed: it was a mistake.

I was overlooking the fact that driving had been even more stressful for me in highschool than it was in grad school, and that the alternative had been more pleasant. I liked talking with my mom in the car, and we developed similar tastes in music. Now at 32, I can drive most places comfortably, and the other ones I can navigate uncomfortably if I have to. I don’t care anymore when I learned to drive, but I’m very glad that I spent those hours in the car with my mom. Hopefully she’d feel the same.

You can repeat this same story for pretty much everything I’ve struggled with. I trace serious problems back into my past and see mistakes. Then I struggle forward anyway. Things change in the present, and suddenly the past looks different, too.

If my mom asked me today, I’d tell her that the biggest thing she got wrong was teaching me to get positive attention by being good and quiet and hoping someone notices. Great way to manage a family or an elementary school class, horrible way to manage a life.

Most recently this pattern has been coming up in my relationship with Ted, because there are a lot of times when one or both of us are too busy to connect as well as we’d like. I get disappointed when I don’t get Ted time, and my gut reaction is to disengage quietly and try to be good by, like, sweeping the floors or reading Rebecca a story. And then maybe later griping about why he’s left the sheets on the floor or why I’m the one getting Rebecca dressed in the morning. I’m implying that I’m working very hard and that he’s making my life more difficult, so he needs to make it up to me. The griping isn’t really about the parenting or housework, though. I’m trying to establish how good and heroic I am. To feel less invisible.

Now, quietly aiming for excellence can be a functional way to deal with being blown off, but it’s not helpful in my relationship with Ted. It does no good to suggest that he’s not working hard enough when what I actually want is for him to be less stressed and spend more time relaxing with me. The other problem is, when I react to being blown off by plunging into my own work, Ted may not see that I’m withdrawing from our relationship–which is information he needs–or he may feel like he can’t interrupt me when he does want to reconnect. So I’m trying to change my reaction away from the good-and-quiet pattern and to check in with him instead.

Am I heroically fighting the legacy of my mom’s parenting mistakes?

Maybe.  But I realized recently that I had a more positive elementary school experience than a lot of my friends, and I’m not sure I’d trade it for an easier time now. Instead of being bored in class, I was proud of myself for sitting quietly and not making trouble, and I enjoyed daydreaming. See, my siblings and I are the contemplative type. My sister meditates. My brother enjoys staring at the seat in front of him during airplane flights. I like that about us.

I suspect that my family’s contemplative nature is the flipside of the “be good and quiet” strategy, and that the same parenting practices helped to cultivate both.  First, consider the languid pace of our attention.  Based on my own parenting instincts–echoes of how I was raised–I suspect that my mom let us take the lead in most of our activities and tried not to interrupt our interest or push us excitedly toward the next thing. This is good parenting, as far as I’m concerned; it nurtures curiosity and helps a kid learn to immerse in whatever she’s doing. It takes parental patience, but fortunately my mom was patient–and I am, too, maybe because of her.  It seems to have had functional results:  When I was little, my mom was proud that I could entertain myself while she mowed the lawn.

This self-pacing at home was balanced by running a lot of errands with my mom. The errands were companionable times that were basically at her pace, and included a lot of waiting at banks, shopping for things I wasn’t interested in, picking up and dropping off my siblings from preschool or friends’ houses, and so on. My mom noticed and talked about how good I was there. Maybe my thoughtful temperament was innate, but her pleasure turned it into a strategy for interacting with others.

One reason not to blame my mom here is that it would have been difficult in practice for her to raise us any other way, given social expectations about children’s public behavior and given that my mom was doing all of the childrearing by herself.  Cultivating well-behaved children was important for her sanity.

However, being good and quiet wasn’t the only strategy for getting my mom’s attention, and it’s only partly her fault that it’s causing me problems now. If I ultimately relied on the good-and-quiet strategy more heavily than I should’ve, it’s because my innate shyness (or is it poor socialization?) made that approach particular appealing. It’s also because my elementary school teachers relied heavily on it–maybe especially for girls?–and because I had the skills to pull it off. Given the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that I used my nascent contemplative talents to become a virtuoso at sitting quietly and thinking.

So I learned some values as a kid that proved maladaptive as an adult–things like self-effacement and excessive self-control–but that doesn’t mean that they were horrible ideas at the time. It means that my circumstances have changed, and that the best way to live has changed with them.  I can be proud of who I was in the past, without having to be that person in the present.

In the end, I don’t worry much about making mistakes with Rebecca. What will count as mistaken rests on Rebecca’s future desires and circumstances more than her current ones. I can’t predict those, not accurately enough to sacrifice today to them.   But I can try to live in ways that seem good and right, right now.  If in another twenty years, my daughter’s digesting that in therapy or consciousness-raising groups, where’s the horror there? We all raise our children with the hope that they’ll grow into fruitful work, and working on oneself is a species of that.

Mom in Black

When I was 19, Ted and some Skiffy friends dressed up as Men in Black for a movie premier.  I dressed up enough to avoid looking out of place next to them, but when it came down to it, I was not a MIB.  How did I fit into the group then?  Ted decided that he was my bodyguard.  As we came down the stairs, he softly said “left,” the way politicians’ handlers do, because politicians always want to look like they know where they’re going.  But unlike most politicians, I don’t know my left from my right unless I stop to think about it, so I headed off in the wrong direction and shattered the illusion.

I remember that scene when Rebecca and I get out of a car together, because Rebecca enjoys knowing where to go about as much as a politician does, and I’m her handler.  She doesn’t like holding hands as she walks, and honestly, I find it awkward, too.  When we get out of the car in an unfamiliar place, I point her to the store we’re going to, and then I shadow her and give her tips on avoiding cars.  I do it because my job is not just to keep my toddler safe.  It’s to help her look cool, and have fun doing it.

I keep a mental tally of ways my parenting seems to differ from what I see at the playground.  Some of the biggies:  I play with the other toddlers as much as I socialize with their parents; Rebecca has been out of diapers for several months; and I’m lackadaisical about playground menaces like falling off the low bar or that rock Rebecca’s been licking.

These three differences are connected.

I think the crux of the situation is that my world and Rebecca’s world overlap somewhat more heavily than most toddlers’ and parents’ worlds. Toddlers are capable, robust, interesting little people, and not all that different from adults, at least not in ways that count.  I’m more inclined to do things with them and treat them as active participants in what’s going on, than I am to do things to them, or to do things separately from them, or to protectively substitute my good sense for theirs.  So I like to play pretend or give a theatrical “oh no!” and jump backwards when someone blows bubbles at me, but the same attitude means that I involve Rebecca in food prep and laundry as much as I can, instead of getting her to do her thing so that I can do my thing.  It means that changing diapers felt out of step with the rest of my relationship with Rebecca, so we started pottying together instead.  It means that when we go grocery shopping, I prefer for Rebecca to walk around and show me things, instead of pushing her in the cart.  It means that we never bothered with a lot of the trappings that mark toddlers as different animals than adults, like using plastic forks or sippy cups.

By the time she was a year old, Rebecca wanted to drink and eat the same way that I did, so I figured, why not?  We try a lot of things that sound like bad ideas–most recently, playing with fire and candles–because I’m always more curious to see what Rebecca’s going to do, than I am wary of what could happen.   Admittedly, the reason this approach works is because her world and mine overlap so closely.  Watching with interest means I can provide quick feedback when she starts doing something that’ll seriously get her burned.

That last section was tricky to write, because I’m betting that most of the parents at the park would agree with me that toddlers are robust, interesting little people, but somehow the same belief takes our parenting in different directions.  So I need to give some disclaimers.

I don’t have anything against sippy cups or diapers as functional, stress-reducing objects.  However, I worry about whether their symbolic connotations feed unwittingly into a derogatory picture of toddlers as incompetent, unfathomable, and untrustworthy.  Foucault et al have argued that our everyday embodied social practices provide the backdrop for our subjectivity in a way that makes existing social arrangements seem natural and automatic.  How we conduct our bodies does a lot to create who we are as social subjects. In other words, the nuances of little rituals like changing a diaper or holding hands as you cross the street tell both parents and toddlers what kind of people they are.   In my relationship with Rebecca, I see the symbolism of these practices as being about the child’s relative autonomy (participant or passenger?), about her relationship to the world (how likely is it to hurt her?  how likely is her presence to hurt it?), and about how I expect her to behave (with good sense or unpredictably?).  But surely for someone else, holding hands could symbolize the sense of safety that comes from love and closeness.  Changing diapers could be a token of acceptance, of letting the child decide how her physical needs will be met, even when it’s less convenient for the parent.

I’ve always been in favor of treating babies as full people, but the specific content of what it means to treat someone as a person comes out of my relationship with Rebecca.  A big reason that changing diapers, drinking from sippy cups, and holding hands have taken on negative connotations for me is that Rebecca’s preferences are against them, and that blocks out whatever positive meanings they might have had.  She’s more interested in observing and imitating her giants than in anything else, and when I see her imitating us, I identify with her implicit desire to act like a competent adult.  That further shifts my values away from “babying” kids and reaffirms my expectations that Rebecca is someone who can navigate the world sensibly and competently, so I set her up to do more of the same.

I have my convictions about how I want to act as a parent, but I’m not offering parenting advice here.  Penny-in-the-slot parenting advice–which assumes that parents who put the same thing in will get the same thing out–doesn’t recognize children as real agents in the relationship.  And if there’s anything I’m against as a parent, it’s discounting children’s agency.

Minding Bodies

I’m revisiting something old this week, for reasons that’ll become clear by the end of the piece. I started this at the same time as Remembering Tiamat, when Rebecca was eight months old, and all the time references are to summer of last year:

I had a conversation stuck in my head all last month, one I had years ago with a friend with muscular dystrophy. He told me how it had been important to him to get on his feet everyday, even if it wasn’t for long. Being in a chair full-time triggers lots of other physiological changes–things I wouldn’t have expected, like being more sensitive to the sun. Last month some part of my brain latched onto those words as a metaphor for how I felt.

I’m pointing out the obvious when I say that that part of my mind lacked perspective. Taking care of a baby may impact your mobility and use of your hands, but it bears no more resemblance to a significant physical disability–I imagine–than a middle school sex ed class’ swaddled sugar sacks bear to Rebecca. The sugar is quintessentially sweet and much more detachable. But for a little while I lost sight of those points, and the story of how that happened stands as an argument that some of the assumptions surrounding ablism are not good for able-bodied people, either.

Ted started a new job in June. He used to be able to work from home after three or four o’clock, and now sometimes he isn’t home until after six. I used to get through some days by watching the clock and waiting for him to come home, so that I could get a break, so that I could live, so that I could cook a nice dinner, so that I could do chores that weren’t flashy enough to hold a baby’s attention or that required moving between rooms and bending over. Now I have to do those things while wrangling Rebecca or else not do them at all–she doesn’t nap by herself, so we really are together all day–and this is my real life.

Once you don’t have regularly scheduled time when you’re off work, it makes it hard to define whatever you’re doing as productive work instead of as your inherent condition. Once the only version of myself I saw regularly was myself with the baby, it set off a series of changes in my sense of who I was and what I was good for. How impotent must I be if getting dinner on the table is an all day project? Or if I have to depend on everyone else to keep track of the details of buying a house? I know that I used to be able to get a good dinner done in an hour or two, but I don’t have the experience of throwing myself at something and churning it out anymore. When I do get time, my attention span turns out to be shorter. I know that I used to be sharper, but that was back when my hands were free to take notes and I wasn’t continually distracted or interrupted.

Being a student was as much an embodied practice as being a stay-at-home mother, but I’d been in the habit of dismissing the physical components of being a grad student as separate from the mental ones. I was raised with the notion that your body is like a machine, in the sense that it’s an instrument of your will or vehicle for your consciousness. Ideally your body was supposed to execute your wishes automatically, without any complaining or talking back, and if your body impacted your mind or drew attention to the way it functioned, that by definition meant it was functioning poorly.

As a student, this led me into over-caffeinated asceticism as the demands of grad school pitted me against my body. If I loved what I was studying, if I wanted to look competent, if I wanted to do right by my students, wouldn’t I find a way to muster myself, no matter how tired or sick I was? My relationship to my body was about control. I was reasonably good at it, too, in that sense of being good that means you’re fucking yourself up and living an unsustainable lifestyle.

This kind of mind-body dualism has the problem not only of being wrong–our consciousness is fundamentally embodied–but it also naturalizes normative standards of productivity (by concealing their material basis and so homogenizing it) and stigmatizes physical demands that might get in the way of those standards. But though I thought I’d denounced dualism years ago, it still creeps into my expectations for myself.

The idea that our bodies should be like machines makes the dreamy physicality of motherhood seem unreal: not really necessary for babies, not a real job, not what makes you uniquely special, and a waste of your “true” or “inner” potential. It’s a cultural bias based on seeing mind and body as separate, and seeing the talkative mind as the real self. From my experience, I’d hazard that the bias is instantiated in part through socially mandated repression of the relationships to our mothers’ bodies. In any case, this kind of dualism suggests that babies grow because it’s just what their bodies do, and the details of their physical experiences don’t matter as long as they get the mechanics down eventually.  Because the model has no way of valuing my quiet presence the way Rebecca does, it gives you the impression that taking care of a baby happens at the mother’s expense rather than through her lively engagement.  We imagine that what a mother does with her body doesn’t depend on her will, personality, and character, and see the gauzy slowing and softening effect that gestating and nurturing a baby has on many women’s minds as unfortunate and not beautiful.

Well, I don’t think it’s beautiful. I’m not there yet. I’m floating the possibility anyway.

But I am there now! It’s one reason I wrote Just Like Magic (1) and the last part of Just Like Magic (3), to talk about how being immersed in Rebecca’s physicality has opened me up to a different set of joys and a different way of knowing things than I had as a grad student. Though I sure am glad to have two-handed time to write about it.

I’m also posting this for Ted. I’m afraid he’ll feel guilty when he remembers how I struggled with his new job, but what I want is for him to know that it’s not about my life versus his at this point, because all the stuff about productivity standards applies to him, too. When you’re swimming against the surge, don’t worry about why you’re not swimming faster.

Just Like Magic (3)

One Monday morning at the end of January, I was standing at the new espresso machine making myself a cappuccino, when Rebecca came up behind me. She was holding a moka pot and a can of shaving cream, and broke into a huge grin when I saw what she had: Coffee with foam!

Rebecca enjoyed playing with my moka pot, which is how I’ve made coffee since college, and so it was on the floor in the dining room, easy to grab.  I was more surprised that she’d remembered the shaving cream my brother had used when he visited at Thanksgiving, when she was 13 months old, and that she knew where we’d stashed it.  And I was the most surprised that she’d put them together.

What do you call it when a kid makes a connection like that? A joke? A poem? A request? A midrash on coffee making? It’s not exactly playing pretend, because she wasn’t trying to do anything with either piece.  Before I became a parent, I didn’t realize how complex non-verbal communication with a toddler could be. The scuttlebutt I heard implied that your pre-verbal alternatives were babysign or inarticulate screaming, and I wasn’t looking forward to either one. But Rebecca’s nonverbal communication is magic and I love it.

Now, when I say that seeing Rebecca make connections is magical, that’s not just hyperbole.  What I mean is, she’s using the same principles of magic that J.G. Frazer laid out in The Golden Bough. Rebecca expresses thoughts and desires by invoking something that resembles what she’s thinking about (shaving cream for milk foam) or that used to be connected to it (the moka pot for coffee). On the practical side, Rebecca gets a cup when she wants water. She brings me a pair of shoes when she wants to go out, and metaphorically, sometimes she used to plunk them down on the bed when she wanted me to get up in the morning. What’s going on is that Rebecca’s noting a pattern and trying to get the whole thing to repeat by repeating some part of that pattern. Once we were at the house of a friend who was potty training, so I took Rebecca’s pants and diaper off, too. After an hour or so, she laid down on the ground where I’d taken her diaper off and stuck her feet up in the air, the same way she does when I change her. “Oh, do you want your diaper back on?” She did. Getting diapered wasn’t something that Rebecca’d ever requested before, and she didn’t have access to the object she wanted. But she got her it anyway, by sympathetic magic.

Err, magic? I doubt Rebecca sees its results as automatic, the way Frazer thought that practitioners of folk magic would. She knows that sometimes I respond how she wants and sometimes I don’t. I think much of Rebecca’s pattern-making isn’t as goal-oriented as Frazer thought folk magic was, either. You could say, as Alison Gopnik does, that Rebecca’s use of objects might sometimes be more like scientific exploration. Last time I had my shoes on, we went outside, so if I pick up a shoe, will we go outside again?

But both the science analogy and the magic analogy fall down for the same reason: they leave out the personhood and relatedness of the people involved.  I’m not just the mysterious mechanism that furnishes Rebecca’s desires or whose responses she’s creating a mental model of. My behavior isn’t only output; it also provides a basic schema for Rebecca to use (imitate) as she interrogates the world.  When Rebecca grabbed my shoes or tried to put them on, it was an imitation of something we’d done previously, not just picking up an object associated with going out. The analogy she’s making isn’t only between the objects involved, but between her and someone else, connected entities. That’s why it was important to her that I saw what she was doing with the cappuccino.  Many times magic is communication–and communion–as much as it’s anything else, and we as parents are part of the spell.

It’s a little unfair that I’m using words to tell you about Rebecca’s nonverbal communication, instead of showing up in person to drop a shoe on your bed. You don’t get the real impact when you’re only reading about it.

Apart from parenting, the place where I see the difference between physical and verbal communication most clearly is in ritual. What you get out of doing a ritual isn’t the same as what you get out of imagining your way through it in your head, and sometimes things that sound deceptively simple make the most powerful rituals. For example, one day after my mom died, I went home from teaching, cast a circle in my hallway, lit a couple candles, and covered my face in flour dough until I had a visible representation of my grief. I can’t tell you, it was such a relief to look at myself in the mirror and see something totally grotesque and powerful flickering back at me. I’d talked to people about how I felt and I’d written about it, but neither of those reached me on the same level. Even though I was alone in my hallway, I felt seen and whole.

This example of mirroring my grief back to myself uses the same process that babies do when they learn to recognize their emotions. According to Sue Gerhardt’s synopsis of existing research in Why Love Matters, one of the main ways that babies learn to identify and process their feelings is by seeing their parents mirror those feelings back to them. Typically parents use exaggerated vocal and facial expressions when they imitate a baby, and that exaggeration helps clue in the baby that he’s being imitated. Feelings that the child sees reacted to and represented externally become something that she can handle. Feelings that aren’t represented or acknowledged don’t disappear so much as they turn into an amorphous tension, your heart beating faster, so many physiological signs of stress.

So seeing part of yourself externalized can bring you understanding deeper than words. There’s power in externalizing for someone else, too, because human mirrors not only experience part of what they’re mirroring–the same parts of the brain fire in both people–they also shape and nuance their subjects as they reflect them. But Rebecca’s toddler antics are a step removed from that basic emotionality. What’s the power there, and why does seeing Rebecca with the moka pot and shaving cream have such a different impact on me than if she’d said what was going on in words?

I’m going to turn to an analogy with ritual again, because Rebecca uses objects and pattern-sense more heavily than everyday adult communication does, and the other place I have experience with that is in pagan ritual. In a pagan context, that sort of communication is part of a deliberate shift in consciousness. Ritual attention is closer down the spectrum of consciousness to what the Reclaiming tradition calls starlight vision or dropped and centered awareness. It’s about seeing patterns and connections first, and imputing meaning to them within that context, rather than isolating particular words or foci of attention from the whole. In life outside ritual, it’s easier to be consumed with managing specifics and not pay attention to the whole until you hit a bump.

In The Philosophical Baby, Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik argues that babies’ consciousness may be similar to the rich, fragmented state adult consciousness tends toward when we turn off executive control and free-associate. She also suggests that small children’s attention is diffuse, like the ritual attention I just described. Instead of focusing tightly the way adults normally do, munchkins’ attention is absorbed in everything at once, which is right how you want it to be if you’re scanning as much information as possible for patterns. The upshot is that babies’ consciousness looks like things we might associate with unconsciousness, but the material they’re thinking about isn’t invisible in the same way as something that’s repressed. It’s a form of thinking that can be actively experienced and that shades into other forms of thought by degrees, as the brain develops.

What Gopnik doesn’t say–because she’s primarily interested in the problem of how babies learn about and experience the world–is that this mode of communication works best if Rebecca’s interlocutor practices a similar sort of thinking. To understand her, you need both knowledge of the patterns she might be invoking and a statistical sense of what sorts of things she normally does. Having a sense for what’s normal lets you pick out which behaviors are out of place, figure out what pattern they should belong to, and complete it.

In contrast to language proper, objects Rebecca’s using take on meaning solely based on their place in a larger structure, so they don’t mean much until you apprehend the whole that they’re part of. Shoes don’t become the equivalent of the word “go,” because Rebecca’s affection for trying on other people’s shoes and for carrying around pairs of things destabilizes their ability to say “let’s go out.” If Rebecca’s got shoes, any or none of the shoes’ attributes and associations could be relevant. You keep your mind open, free-associating a little, waiting for a pattern to register.

The moments when I see what Rebecca’s doing break into everyday life like a burning bush. I’m always surprised. And the surprise isn’t just because I have no idea where she got the shaving cream, or because it might merely be coincidence that she drew pubes on herself in purple marker. It’s because when you apprehend the whole first, rather than piecing together a message from its parts, your awareness of what’s going on happens abruptly. It has the impact of a joke that’s funny when you get it suddenly, but not when someone explains it to you bit by bit. You can’t immediately say how you know what’s going on. You just do.

The structure of non-verbal communication means that it involves the unconscious more openly and actively than linguistic communication does, which means that it feels different.  My background as a pagan gives that experience more positive connotations than it might have otherwise, and makes me more tuned in to subtle shifts in consciousness.  But I’m curious, has anyone else had this kind of experience with a mostly non-verbal toddler, and are there other factors I might be missing?

There are days when living with someone whose every move is potentially symbolic thaws something in the back of my mind. The boundaries I’d normally draw between communication, instrumental action, playing pretend, and exploratory play don’t exist. It’s as if quietly, in the background of everyday life, the world has exploded into poetry, like all the ordinary parts of my house are rough with the stubble of ideas and perception. It would be easy to overstate this–we’re talking stubble here, not a full beard–but something is different.